Tournaments | Story | 1/20/2019

Tall timber leads PNWRB Upper

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Cole Hinkelman (Perfect Game)

GLENDALE, Ariz. – There they stood Sunday morning, just outside the first base dugout on White Sox-Field 5 at the Camelback Ranch complex. At first glance, it looked like a group of high school-aged ballplayers doing their best impressions of the towering redwood trees they’re probably familiar with just from calling the Great Northwest their home.

Just about every top prospect wearing the uniform of the Pacific Northwest Regional Baseball Upperclass Royal (Pac NWRB Upper Royal for this purpose) looked to be in the 6-foot-2 to 6-foot-4 range, with only a handful of exceptions. And to top it off, those players were generally wearing  between 190 to 215 pounds on their athletic frames.

Physical stature doesn’t make a ball player, of course, but first impressions can carry weight at an event like the Perfect Game Upperclass West MLK Championship, which is the reason the Upper Royal are here this weekend. (Pac NWRB also a pair of teams entered in both the PG Underclass and PG Freshman West MLK Championships).

And the Upper Royal, with its roster stocked almost exclusively with high school seniors (one junior out of 19) proved they do more than just look the part by winning their pool championship with a 3-0-0 mark and advancing to Monday’s quarterfinal-round of the playoffs.

They earned the playoffs' No. 3 seed and will face-off with No. 6 Sticks Baseball Academy in one of the three Upper quarterfinal games to be played at the Camelback Ranch complex on Monday morning. And it is also important to know that it isn't just the tall guys that carry this team. There are plenty of other top prospects that aren't quite as big that carry a lot of weight within the program.

The Pacific Northwest Regional Baseball program operates under the direction of Rhett Parker, but Nate O’Bryan and Rob Tomlinson were serving as the co-coaches of the Upper Royal on Sunday.

There are several fine travel ball programs in the Northwest that are working to get the region’s top prospects the exposure and recognition they deserve. The people at PNWRB, under Parker’s direction, want to enhance the region’s reputation nationally, although the talent that resides there has never been a secret to college recruiters or MLB scouting departments.

“With this group, actually they’re pretty exceptional,” Tomlinson told PG on Sunday. “We’ve really tried to tailor this group specifically for the (MLB) June Draft so some of our area scouts will come down here and watch these guys.

“It’s a better setting against really good competition rather than the scouts having to go around all over the Northwest during the high school season. … This is an ideal situation for those guys.”

So, what about these guys? What about all that tall timber – and some not quite as tall, too – that have the Pac NWRB Upper Royal playing into Monday? The best place to start is with Cole Hinkelman, a 6-foot-4, 215-pound 2019 outfielder from Sammamish, Wash., who is ranked No. 45 nationally in his class and has signed his letter-of-intent with Stanford.

“Cole is special,” Tomlinson said. “If you look at that kid, he’s (6-4), wide shoulders, has a lot of tools. He can run, he’s got an arm; the kid can hit from the left side. … He’s a monster, he’s really good, so I think Stanford has a pretty special guy right there.

Tomlinson wasn’t finished: “On top of that, he’s a great kid and that’s another thing we kind of focus on,” he said. “If you look at some of the PNW teams from the past – even Team Northwest with Mike Brooks – the kids we bring down are character guys.”

There are a lot of other guys that fit that profile:

Derek Shaver (top-500, Wichita State) is a 6-foot-4, 205-pound infielder/outfielder from Grand Junction, Colo.; Will Simpson (top-500, Washington State) from Sammamish checks-in at 6-4, 210; left-hander Liam Hatakenaka (Portland) from Bainbridge Island, Wash., is listed at 6-5, 215; right-hander/corner-infielder Jared Feikes (top-500, Santa Clara) from Seattle comes in at 6-2, 200; third baseman Brandham Ponce (top-500, Washington) out of Federal Way, Wash., stands 6-2, 195.

And then there are infielder/outfielder Justin Boyd (No. 398, Oregon State) from Parker, Colo., and middle-infielder Ben Patacsil (Portland) from Renton, Wash., both of whom are listed at 6-1, 190. Want just a tad smaller (?) still? Please defer to 5-foot-9, 190-pound catcher/outfielder Jake Greiving (top-500, Air Force) from Parker, Colo. That’s a lot of good size and a lot of great talent, but best of all, they show a lot of camaraderie.

“Most of these guys I’ve either played with or against for years now,” Hinkelman said. “Getting all of us together to be able to play on one team at this tournament is really fun; it’s awesome to be able to compete with these guys.

“Getting a bunch of like-minded guys together and being able to compete is something awesome,” he added. “You don’t get that with every team you play on, either, so I’m really just having fun with it and just enjoying it together.”

Ironically, or perhaps just coincidentally, it was a couple of the “smaller” guys who played oversized roles in Pac NWRB Upper Royal’s 4-0, pool championship-clinching victory over the Minnesota Blizzard Elite Red Sunday morning.

Patacsil doubled, singled and drove in three runs, and 5-foot-11, 135-pound 2019 left-hander Cole Bakker from Federal Way threw six innings of one-hit, shutout ball, striking out seven and walking three.

The athletes Tomlinson and O’Bryan are overseeing are not only big, strong and talented, but they’re local, as well. With the exception of four roster spots held down by four prospects from Colorado and two from Oregon, every other spot is filled by a kid from Washington.

That’s the beauty of baseball in the Northwest: it’s really a kind of small world environment. Most of the guys on the Upper Royal roster have known each other for years through their respective high school or regional travel ball teams so when the opportunity to put them together on the same roster the whole process of “gelling” comes about rather seamlessly.

“We kind of noticed that day-one that guys were coming in off their flights and they were excited to see who their roommates were because they all knew each other,” O’Bryan told PG Sunday morning. “When we approached the field for game-one, everyone kind of knew what their job was, no one had a big ego and everyone knew what the game plan was.”

The timing of the PG West MLK couldn’t be any better for the teams that travel to the desert from northern states, with their players eager to get out of the cold and into the sunshine and 70-dgree temps.

The Pac NWRB organization identifies University Place, Wash., as its base of operation; University Place sits on the Puget Sound waterfront about six miles west of Tacoma. It’s a pretty central location as far as keeping tabs on players from the Seattle area to the north and the Portland, Ore., area to the south. The GBG NW Marucci program is also based in University Place.

“This time of year in the Northwest it’s gray, rainy; just kind of that dreary kind of vibe,” Hinkelman said. “Getting down here and being able to play baseball with these guys under the sun in Arizona; it’s awesome.”

But the timing also requires the adults involved to use caution, especially when it comes to the handling of their young arms. The PNWRB Upper Royal coaches used six pitchers in the first three games and Bakker was the only one who worked as many as six innings.

“Safety for our pitchers is always a concern of ours; usually we try to load-up on pitchers,” Tomlinson said. “We pretty much have a ceiling … and we want to make sure that we build that trust with our high school coaches so that those high school coaches do allow them to come here and know that we’re not going to (overwork) them.”

The guys from the Northwest are enjoying their time in the Southwest, but this is not a vacation, per se. There are championships to be won, lessons to be learned and opportunities to be seized upon.

“Up in Washington it rains a lot and it’s not the ideal place to play baseball like it is where you have 365 days a year in the sun, “O’Bryan said. “Obviously, this is a great opportunity for them to come down here and play baseball in great weather right before their high school ball starts and get them prepared.”

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